In 1989, New York reviewers had a field day after the opening of Steven Berkoff’s theatrical version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with noted New York Times critic Frank Rich leading the negative charge with his bombastic review of the production.
Also there on opening night was Susan Galbraith, a wide-eyed theater lover and actress who was thrilled to be seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov star in the story she first read in high school. Her opinion of the play was vastly different.
“I was blown away by this and I thought it was a stunning production. I found myself weeping,” she says. “The next day I was shocked at the reviews. Mikhail Baryshnikov was particularly slammed, but I thought it was everything it was supposed to be.”
To understand Galbraith’s theatrical response, we must first delve into her somewhat complicated backstory. She was born in Indonesia and her first experience with live theater was in Southeast India.
“I knew and studied and watched a lot of Balinese and Javanese productions; I lived in Singapore and traveled to India, and later studied the Japanese dance theatre, Kabuki,” she says. “So my first training in theater was an Asian fusion of music, dance and theater.”
She studied acting in New York, London and Minnesota, and was very much influenced by the British approach of experimentation, following young London directors like Peter Brook.
“When I came back to America and went through American realism training—a watered down Stanislavski (Moscow Arts) approach to theater. Although I tried to do it, I realized my love was really for genre-bending approaches to performance,” Galbraith says. “Whether that was movement theater or dance theater, those small moments and acting beats, it was very important for me to bring those two things together.”
A lot of what she was seeing on Broadway were the more “straight ahead” musicals, although she admits Sondheim was doing some interesting things. She wanted to follow her passion for experimental theater and when she saw Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, she knew that was the direction she wanted to follow.
And she’s made quite the career for herself. Over the years, Galbraith has worked in both classical and contemporary theater and dance repertory with nationally and internationally renowned directors and choreographers including Peter Brook, Peter Sellars, Emily Mann, Anthony Cornish, the Kabuki team Leonard Pronko and Takao Tomono, Virginia Freeman and Drury Pifer.
With Pifer, she teamed up assisting with the directing of his play Strindberg in Hollywood at Woolly Mammoth, and later, as an actress, soloing his Screaming Woman.
Galbraith is a founding member of the Alliance for New Music-Theatre and currently serves as its president. As part of the theater company, she is directing her own version of Metamorphosis at the Capital Fringe Trinidad Theatre this month.
The show originally ran in September when the Czech Embassy asked the company to mount a production for last year’s Mutual Inspirations Festival about anything related to Kafka, and Galbraith was thrilled to get a chance to stage Metamorphosis herself.
“I blindly went back to research Berkoff’s work and I found it still very strong; though his take is very class-oriented, very London East Ender, and I thought, maybe that’s not exactly what I want to do, although I did want to still honor him,” she says. “I took his adaption and further stretched it to be about many things. I think Kafka’s piece is so elastic that there are people who come to it and see it in many different ways.”
She cites of examples of some who view it as a psychological portrait of a dysfunctional family, others who latch on to the idea that Jewishness as an outsider, and one German man who was from Prague saw it to be about immigrants.
“I wanted to have the ability to let people see it from other levels,” she says. “There was a time in Prague when a lot of theater was musical cabaret; we’re not doing this as a cabaret, but I mixed up the music. There’s a Czech carol in it, there’s a Jewish Shabbat song… the mixture of cultures just felt right.”
The Metamorphosis team has been invited to Prague to perform this May, and because of needing to be a bit more portable, Galbraith had actors work with animation to bring some of Kafka’s original drawings to life on stage.
April 29 – May 17
Alliance for New-Music Theatre at
Capital Fringe Trinidad Theatre
1358 Florida Ave NE
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
One thing Galbraith wants all theater lovers to know—there’s something for everyone in this production.
“It’s athletic, it’s musical, bugs crawl around on ladders close to the ceiling. There’s a lot of humor, and I hope people come to it regardless of what they think about bugs or Kafka,” she says. “There are so many ways of interpreting this show and we’ve had some wonderful discussions with audience members.”
For example, when the show first played in September, a class from American University came because they were reading the book in class.
“You could tell they weren’t wild about reading it but once the play was over, they were so excited and stayed after to talk to our actors and invited me to come to their class,” Galbraith says. “When I was there, they were all talking to their other classmates about how exciting it was and now they wanted to go back into the story and discuss it more. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”
– Susan Galbraith is Artistic Director for Alliance for New-Music Theatre and writes for DC Theatre Scene.
Scenes from 2014 production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, produced by Alliance for New-Music Theatre, directed by Susan Galbraith